Israeli Closure of Rafah Crossing Cuts Off Gaza’s Most Vital Aid Lifeline

REUTERS/Hatem Khaled
Palestinians gather to receive food cooked by a charity kitchen, amid shortages of aid supplies, after Israeli forces launched a ground and air operation in the eastern part of Rafah, as the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas continues, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip May 8, 2024.

CAIRO – Food, fuel and basic supplies are running dangerously low in Gaza after Israel seized and shut down the Rafah border crossing Tuesday, aid agencies said, threatening to worsen an already catastrophic humanitarian situation.

Israel’s forces took control early Tuesday of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt in what appeared to be the start of its promised ground operation in the southern border city – opposed by even its staunchest allies, including Washington. The Israel Defense Forces also intensified its bombardment of Rafah and issued evacuation orders for about 100,000 people in the city’s east.

Israel’s seizure of the crossing plunged the aid community into crisis, cutting its key supply lines and stranding international personnel on both sides of the Gaza-Egypt border. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization, said Wednesday that the agency only had three days’ worth of fuel left to keep health services running in the south.

Israeli authorities announced Wednesday that they would reopen Kerem Shalom, the other major crossing for aid trucks, which has been closed since Sunday after Hamas militants killed four Israeli soldiers in a rocket attack over the weekend.

Shimon Freedman, a spokesman for COGAT, the Israeli military body that oversees civilian affairs in the Palestinian territories, said Wednesday afternoon that the crossing was “open” and that trucks had passed through to the Gaza side of the border. But the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, or UNRWA, said no aid has reached it in Gaza.

“The crossing area has ongoing military operations and is an active war zone,” Louise Wateridge, an UNRWA spokeswoman currently in Rafah, said Wednesday. “We are hearing continued bombardments in this area throughout the day. No fuel or aid has entered into the Gaza Strip, and this is disastrous for the humanitarian response.”

Sean Carroll, president and CEO of American Near East Refugee Aid, or Anera, said that Kerem Shalom was “open in the sense that trucks can drop stuff inside the line” but that “the supply route is not fully open and safe to use.”

Wael Abu Omar, a Gaza border official, said Israeli forces fired on six Palestinian border employees Wednesday as they tried to make their way to the Gaza side of Kerem Shalom to receive the aid.

“The IDF is currently reviewing the circumstances surrounding an incident of fire toward a vehicle with Palestinian workers who were on their way to work at the Gazan side of the Kerem Shalom Crossing,” the Israeli military said in a statement. “Several people were injured and are receiving initial medical treatment at the scene by IDF troops.”

Israel’s continued blockage of Rafah – the only entry point for fuel needed to power humanitarian operations and basic services in the Gaza Strip – will prevent lifesaving assistance from reaching vulnerable people, U.N. agencies and aid groups said.

“With that crossing now being closed, our whole humanitarian operation on the ground is compromised,” Ricardo Pires, spokesman for UNICEF, the U.N. children’s agency, said in an interview Tuesday. “If the crossing is not urgently reopened, the entire civilian population in Rafah and in the Gaza Strip will be at greater risk of famine, disease and death.”

More than 1 million displaced people, including an estimated 600,000 children, are crowded into Rafah, which was considered the last relatively safe haven for civilians as Israeli forces laid waste to northern Gaza and pushed progressively south over the past seven months.

Rafah has also been the main aid hub for relief operations in Gaza. U.N. agencies and aid organizations set up headquarters there, and international aid workers have used the crossing to rotate in and out of the Strip.

According to U.N. figures, 1.1 million Gazans – half the population – face catastrophic food insecurity, and 1 in 3 children under age 2 suffer from acute malnutrition. Cindy McCain, head of the World Food Program, said Sunday that a “full-blown famine” was underway in the north and was spreading south.

In Rafah, there is one toilet for every 850 people. Health workers say unsanitary and crowded conditions are fueling the spread of respiratory and waterborne diseases.

Humanitarian groups had reported some improvement in aid delivery in recent weeks after President Biden demanded that Israel do more to ease the suffering of civilians following a deadly strike on foreign aid workers. An average of 189 trucks crossed via Rafah and Kerem Shalom per day in April, the highest volume since land routes were opened in late October, according to UNRWA, yet well below the 500 trucks U.N. agencies say are needed daily – at a minimum – to alleviate the crisis.

Distribution remains a challenge, aid workers say, and the deconfliction system between humanitarian groups and Israeli forces is still fraught.

Apparent momentum in cease-fire talks Monday generated hope that a pause in hostilities would allow aid agencies to surge supplies throughout Gaza. But there was little sign of diplomatic progress Wednesday, or indications that Israel was prepared to pull back from Rafah.

Some aid groups received notices to evacuate parts of the city along with tens of thousands of civilians sheltering there. Anera has already moved out of Rafah and suspended its operations there.

“Anera and all international aid organizations are scrambling to figure out how best to serve a suddenly again uprooted population while staying safe ourselves,” Carroll said. “Until there is more clarity on safety and also aid crossings are open again, we cannot fully carry out our work.”

UNICEF, anticipating a Rafah invasion, pre-positioned supplies including drinking water, therapeutic food for malnourished children, vaccines and hygiene kits, Pires said. But if the Rafah crossing remains closed – and supply lines and fuel sources are cut off – the agency expects that it won’t be able to deliver aid beyond the end of the week, he added.

Construction of a U.S.-provided temporary pier off the coast of Gaza is complete, but ships haven’t started unloading aid there yet because of weather concerns, Sabrina Singh, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said Tuesday.

COGAT said 60 aid trucks entered northern Gaza on Tuesday via the newly reopened Erez crossing, which can only handle only 100 trucks a day, said Scott Anderson, director of UNRWA affairs in Gaza.

Rafah is an irreplaceable lifeline because it is home to Gaza’s main fuel storage depot, which can hold 1 million liters, Anderson said.

“We’re trying to scramble and see where else we could put fuel but we’re not getting anywhere close to that [volume],” he said. “If we don’t get fuel, hospitals don’t work, water isn’t generated, sewage waste isn’t picked up.”

Andrea De Domenico, head of operations in the Palestinian territories for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told reporters Tuesday that most of the food distribution in southern Gaza was suspended Monday. If more nutrition supplies don’t come in soon, he added, “treatment of more than 3,000 children with acute malnutrition will be interrupted.”

Aid agencies need about 200,000 liters (about 53,000 gallons) of fuel daily to run their operations. By evening Tuesday, they were down to 30,000 liters (8,000 gallons), De Domenico said.

The fuel shortage was also disrupting telecommunications systems in Gaza, he said. U.N. officials warned that ongoing disruptions to communications networks – already unreliable after months of war – would hinder humanitarian work and prevent Palestinian families from safely evacuating Rafah.

Israel’s evacuation orders Monday have prompted some 50,000 people to flee their homes or shelters, according to UNRWA. The streets of Rafah were packed Tuesday with families rushing to leave the city’s east. But “there’s no transportation available because fuel is not available,” said Nebal Farsakh, a spokeswoman for the Palestine Red Crescent Society. Prices of food and other essential items in markets, which had begun to stabilize, have skyrocketed again with aid entry points locked down.

Displaced people leaving Rafah need materials such as ropes, plastic sheets and nails to construct new shelters elsewhere, De Domenico said, “and those tools are simply not available in Gaza.”

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday that it was “absolutely critical” that Israel allow the Rafah crossing to be “opened up as soon as possible.”

Biden, in his conversation Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also emphasized the need to reopen Kerem Shalom.

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres has urged Israel “to stop any escalation and engage constructively in the ongoing diplomatic talks.”

“Haven’t civilians suffered enough death and destruction?” he said. “Make no mistake, a full-scale assault on Rafah would be a human catastrophe.”